Review: Frida & Diego at the High Museum Atlanta
Guest post by Karen Nurenberg Rothstein
I recently was submerged in a day of Passion, Politics and Paintings during a visit to the “Frida & Diego” exhibition at the High Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
This is the largest collection of works by Mexican artists Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) and Diego Rivera (1886-1957) ever shown in the United States. It consists of about 120 works by the artists and includes many important photographs of them by several well-known photographers of the time (and some unknown photographers). If you are (or plan to be) in the area, don’t miss this wonderful exhibit running through May 12th, 2013.
Both artists are notorious for their communist beliefs as well as their passion for one another and for Mexico. While Frida is best known for her expressive self portraits of beauty and pain, and Diego is famous for his massive, politically charged murals, their range of talents far exceeded those preconceived molds and they supported each other’s work even when their relationship was turbulent and painful. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to peek into the couples’ tumultuous life and glimpse the full range of their talent.
Approaching the front of the High Museum from Peachctree Street, Frida’s well-known “Self-Portrait with Monkeys” entices all from a mural-sized announcement of the exhibit within. (see photo above)
Entering the lobby, you’re greeted by a life-sized, colorful “standee” of the dynamic couple that visitors can put their faces into for a memorable snapshot. It highlights the notable difference in their size and appearance.
When the elevator doors open on the exhibition, there they are: Frida and Diego blown-up on a freestanding wall and you are at once in their lives.
Beginning the exhibit are two self-portraits that really seem to encapsulate the stories of each artist.
In Rivera’s “Self-Portrait with Wide-Brimmed Hat,” (1907) we see a 21-year-old Diego projecting the rich mystique of bohemian Madrid. A four-year scholarship brought him from Mexico and afforded him access to the European avant-garde which proved very formative.
In Kahlo’s “Self-Portrait with Necklace,” (1933) she shows-off a string of vibrant, pre-Columbian, jade beads. Frida had an extensive costume jewelry collection, which figured prominently in her self-portraits. She loved bright clothes and used them to reflect the traditional dress and talents of her people and the place of her heart, Mexico. This painting was done while in Detroit as Diego was working on a mural at the Detroit Institute of Art.
The couple did not meet properly until a fateful party thrown by photographer Tina Modotti in 1928. Diego was 42 years old and had been painting since the age of 10. Frida was half his age and had just begun to discover painting while recovering from massive injuries resulting from a bus accident in 1926.
Rivera had been painting for more than 30 years before they came together, so the exhibit naturally begins with his earlier work. Surprisingly however, it continues to display the artist’s works in separate sections rather than showing their artistic progression side by side.
After 1907, Diego traveled around Europe, including a stop in Bruges, Belgium, where he studied the Flemish masters and met the Russian émigré artist, Angelina Beloff. She later became his companion and common-law wife when they set up residence in Paris around 1912. There, he eventually abandoned realist painting, and took up with the artists of the Cubist Movement. He did several well-known pieces in this style, some of which are included in this exhibit. A favorite of mine, although not the most widely known, is a 1915 oil on canvas called “The Flea Market.”
Also included in the exhibition is one of Diego’s most accomplished and better known works in Cubism, “Young Man with a Fountain Pen.”
Painted in 1914, it portrays his friend and fellow Mexican, Adolfo Best Maugard, who was also in Paris at the time. A year earlier, Diego did a more naturalistic painting of his friend. This portrait is not on exhibit but is pictured beside “Young Man with a Fountain Pen,” highlighting Rivera’s drastic shift in style toward Cubism.
Another strong Cubist piece on show is “Knife and Fruit in front of Window,” from 1917.
It is said that this work “captures the vertical qualities of Paris” and was inspired by Paul Cézanne, who Diego admired. The round shapes and vivid fruit colors, contrast with the muted, angular, rooftops to make this a lovely work. This moving piece was painted just three days after his firstborn son, Diego Junior had died, not yet two years old.
Another room displays some of Diego’s wonderful lithographs.
“The Agrarian Leader Zapata,” (1932) is a superb piece and reveals his political allegiances as does much of his work.
One of Rivera’s more famous murals is dramatically reproduced in a larger-than-life format among the lithos. Titled “In the Arsenal,” it is located in Mexico City at the Ministry of Education building and was painted in 1928. This mural has rich, bold colors and shows Diego’s activism as a member of the Mexican Communist Party.
Most of his murals portray his social and political beliefs, and this one is a fine example. Pictured in the painting are many of the people active in revolutionary Mexico at the time. In the center of this mural Frida Kahlo hands out guns to the workers. Other well-known activists depicted include Julio Antonio Mella, a founder of the “internationalized” Cuban Communist Party; Vittorio Vidale, an Italian-born Stalinist sympathizer; and Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer and revolutionary political activist.
This piece really caught peoples’ attention at the High Museum.
In “Calla Lily Vendor,” (1943) an oil done on masonite (as several of the works in the exhibit are), Diego shows simple workers and every-day people. Many paintings done in the later years of his life turned to this style after the revolution was over.
In this one, you can see only the vendor’s arms and hat. The Calla Lily is a recurring flower in Diego’s work. Some have proposed it is because he was influenced by Freud’s overtly sexual comparison to the female genitalia.
Perhaps Rivera’s most famous mural in the USA is one that was destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller, “Man at the Crossroads.” After commissioning the painting for his Rockefeller Center, the business magnate had it destroyed because Diego wouldn’t remove the image of the Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. In 1934, Diego reproduced the mural in Mexico and called it “Man, Controller of the Universe.” In it were many well-known faces including Lenin and Leon Trotsky as well as Rockefeller holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a woman’s hand in the other (effectively portraying him as a drinking womanizer). Needless to say, Rockefeller was not pleased. This recreated mural has a room all its own at the High. It is bold and quite fabulously exhibited. Take a while to examine it.
This final piece of Rivera’s work I have chosen is from his “Sunset” series of oil and tempera on canvas. It was painted in 1956, not long after Frida had died and Diego was diagnosed with cancer, a sad period in his life. It reminds me of Vincent van Gogh’s work, the colors are wonderful and so striking.
Just one year later, in November of 1957, Rivera died in his Mexico studio.
We now take a turn into Frida’s world and although for most of it, Diego and Frida are tumultuously intertwined, this painting called “The Bus” portrays an earlier time in her life.
At age 18, after a pleasant day spent with a boyfriend, Frida and the young man boarded a bus for the journey home. In a life-changing accident, the bus collided with a streetcar and many were killed. Frida was found with a handrail piercing her body. Initially thought to be untreatable, she defied the odds but faced a long recovery in bed. During this time, she stopped studying to be a doctor and turned instead to painting. With paints given to her by her father (a photographer), she taught herself, creating many self portraits. Having a mirror attached to her bed, “Frida” was what she saw the most of.
“The Bus” an oil on canvas, was done in 1929 and shows Frida (at right) on the bus before it was hit. Seated beside her are a five others, portraying a range of people from Mexican society; a woman holding a shopping basket, a man in blue overalls, an indigenous woman dressed in rich colors, a young boy looking out the window and a well-dressed banker holding a sack of gold. The museum’s multimedia guide suggests that the blue collar worker in bib overalls, may represent the man who actually removed the rail to help save her.
This accident caused her pain and heath problems throughout her life.
After marrying Diego in 1929, Frida accompanied him on many trips. In 1932-33 Rivera was commissioned to do his famous Detroit Industry frescoes and Frida went with him. Here she had a miscarriage, her second, and was admitted to the Henry Ford Hospital.
“The Henry Ford Hospital,” (oil on metal – 1932) is also known as “The Flying Bed.” It recalls one of the most traumatic moments in her life as she realized she couldn’t bear children and was hospitalized in a strange town. This is a small but horrifying look into Frida’s deep sadness. Frida is pictured lying in a pool of blood with six images surrounding the bed, all connected by red strands representing umbilical cords. The plaster female torso, the fetus, the snail, the machine, the orchid and the fractured pelvis, all symbolize aspects of the trauma she endured. She relied on her earlier medical training for some of the anatomical details. In the background, you can see the Ford family factories in the skyline of Detroit as she saw it. On the side of the bed are the words HENRY FORD HOSPITAL DETROIT.
Next I enjoyed these three works by Frida. They show her talent and versatility.
The wonderful “Portrait of Natasha Gelman” is an oil on masonite from 1943. Natasha and her husband Jacques were supporters of Diego and Frida and accumulated a vast collection of Mexican art.
This is a carefully and superbly executed colored-pencil drawing of Lady Cristina Hastings, done in 1931. She was the wife of Lord Francis Hastings. The couple often traveled with Frida and Diego in order to be close to great art. Frida liked Christina for her vibrant personality, and it is said that the two women likely had a romantic affair.
During another phase, Frida made several still-life paintings. “Still-Life with Parrot and Flag” is an oil on masonite from 1951. By this time, she was becoming quite weak and endured constant pain, though she was still able to execute this piece with great detail. It is said she turned to still-life because she wanted to see the beauty in life, for hers was so painful.
In 1950, Frida’s heath was deteriorating. She underwent several operations on her spine, and after surgery, she wore this plaster cast which she painted.
Many of Frida’s most famous self-portraits are shown together in this exhibition. “Self-portrait with Monkey” (oil on masonite – 1945) was my favorite in this room. In it, Frida shows herself with her favourite Xoloitzcuintli dog and her pet spider-monkey who peers out nervously from behind her shoulder. A pre-Columbian statue with a pensive appearance sits to the right and a golden ribbon connects them all with Frida’s signature and date encircled at top.
She painted many of her pets and loved having them with her, perhaps to take the place of the children she and Diego could never have.
She died in her sleep on July 13, 1954.
The last room displays an interesting array of photographs showing the couple together, with friends and separately. These are the four I chose to share:
This bedroom is where Frida did so much of her work when she was ill.
Lastly, surrounded by these historic photographs, is a little painting showing a face that is half Diego and half Frida all framed with shells. Frida presented it to Diego on his 58th birthday. This special piece in its precious frame, shows how Frida always considered them one, and how even through their tumultuous relationship, neither could live with out the other. The snail and the scallop symbolize their union.
This one touched me the most, as it seemed to embody the love she had inside her.
Of course this is only a fraction of the amazing works on display in this exhibition. This is a show you don’t want to miss. It promises to enthrall all who attend.
Text and photographs by Karen Nurenberg Rothstein – April 2013.
IF YOU GO:
Frida & Diego – Passion, Politics and Painting runs through May 12, 2013
The High Museum Atlanta, Georgia, USA – Half-Price entry after 4pm on Thursdays!
Visit their website for hours, tickets and more information: http://www.high.org/frida-diego